Masindi Golf Course is an ex-golf course. I hesitate to say it, but the Bradt Guide let us down on this one. There it was, clearly marked on the town plan: ‘Golf Course’. But then Bradt had made the same mistake at Mbale, over in the east. We had also had our suspicions about the course at Tororo a few miles away, though we didn’t spend much time looking for it. At least the club house at Mbale had been converted into a sports club, though the course itself was now just a field. The club house at Masindi, however, has been ignominiously rebranded as a ‘24/7 club’, though it is well enough preserved, by the looks of things. A club not just open at all hours, but to all sorts, as long as they have enough money to buy a drink - some improvement on the rather more divisive social mores of the British colonial establishment which built it.
Like the nearby tennis courts, much of the old golf course is knee-high in grass. Some of it has reverted to what the English would call ‘meadow’.
It is pock-marked with anthills, grazed by cows and provides a quiet refuge for retiring flowers of various kinds. If we hadn’t read our Bradt, we would never have known it had ever been a golf course.
The rest of the course has become the ‘parade ground’, and that was where we gravitated now, for our visit to Masindi coincided with Independence Day. Off we went to investigate the celebrations. We had been told they would start at 8 in the morning. Having our doubts about the likelihood of this happening quite so promptly, we wandered over at about 8.45. Things eventually kicked off sometime after 10, which wasn’t bad at all by Ugandan standards.
Families started drifting along to the field, all dressed in their Sunday best.
|A miniature President Museveni|
Big men in suits talked pompously and loudly on their mobile phones, while mothers herded their broods along. Older brothers and sisters carried their siblings, all amazingly well behaved despite the long wait. In Britain they would have been whining and kicking each other, but the patience of Ugandan children is quite remarkable. However, the omni-present policemen were not going to be denied the opportunity to demonstrate their importance and every so often waved their batons and guns, and bellowed at the most defenceless. They gestured to the little ones to stay within an invisible line, which they re-adjusted at random whenever they felt their authority was not being sufficiently respected. Uganda has a phenomenal number of armed soldiers, security guards and policemen, who loiter at street corners and make cursory searches outside significant buildings. There were more than enough of the local variety to fill the parade ground at Masindi, some to march and the rest to pretend to keep the peace.
And all this time, the school children were gathering behind the trees.
Uniforms had been washed, hands and faces scrubbed and shoes borrowed.
Children had came from all corners of the district, some from well-to-do private schools but many from schools in the depths of the country, having travelled for several miles standing upright in the backs of cattle trucks. The secondary pupils practised brandishing their sticks, the juvenile version of the soldiers’ fixed bayonets.
Then the band started up, a couple of trumpets, a horn and a large traditional drum, and in they all marched, soldiers first and children last.
However, I won’t bore you with the stop/start nature of the occasion, the important dignitaries ambling in long after proceedings had begun, and the inaudible speeches. Predictably, the heavens opened just as things started to become interesting. The marchers, nursery toddlers included, just stood there, for rain is just rain, and it was the rainy season after all. They would dry… eventually. I donned my emergency rainproof poncho. The children around us gawped and pointed. Stuart tapped his forehead. ‘Mzungo madam mad,’ he announced, transforming their polite amusement into uncontrollable hilarity.
Under the torrential downpour, we watched mesmerised as the colonel and his statuesque wife, the latter nine-foot tall and resplendent in red and yellow silk dress and matching turban, slow-marched down the lines reviewing the troops, preceded by a pair of pygmy soldiers with diagonal red sashes. No photos, I’m afraid, it was far too wet. Just use your imagination.
We didn’t stay much longer. The rain didn’t show any sign of abating and we had to get up to Murchison Falls. We wandered back along the road for a genteel refreshment at the Masindi Hotel.
Another relic of colonial times, it has survived remarkably well. The oldest hotel in Uganda, as it announces itself, once welcomed Ernest Hemingway following an uncomfortable, and no doubt itchy, night on the shores of the Nile after he crashed his plane at the Falls. Kathryn Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart stayed there while filming The African Queen which is set a few miles away. And now the Ritchies were there.
Among the attractive features of this lovely 1920s building are the wood carvings. One of my favourites is the elephant trampling the unfortunate mzungu hunter, while the locals look on impassively, waiting just as their children and grandchildren carried on waiting - until 1962 when Independence eventually came and the British eventually left. As we had seen earlier in the day and forty-eight years after the Union Flag was lowered at last, Ugandans are good at waiting.
Modern Uganda is a country that the children on the parade ground can be proud of. No, it’s not perfect by any means. Already Stuart and I sometimes wish that people were a little more impatient and, that things would move along a little more quickly: quick march rather than slow march. But think what Uganda has achieved. After a pretty terrible start and some disastrous presidents (Amin, a northerner and British protégé, the most notorious) there is a growing sense of unity, of what it means to be Ugandan. The British took a collection of nearly a dozen independent kingdoms, favoured some, Buganda most notably, and used them to force the rest to submit. It turned tribe against tribe, a policy of divide and rule which is taking years to mend.
Since the late eighties, the theme has been unity: ‘We are all Ugandans’, announce the billboards. Relationships between the Christian 85% and the Muslim 11% are remarkably good and seem to be surviving the latest bomb attacks. Eid is a public holiday and the President, who is not a Muslim, celebrated it publicly. Money is pouring into the north to try to heal some of the more recent wounds. The golf club and hotel would have admitted none of the local inhabitants, except as groundsmen or waiters, whatever their tribe or religion. I didn’t weep too many tears at the overgrown golf course, though Stuart no doubt felt differently. Perhaps better this way than conserving the last remnants of a forgotten and irrelevant way of life.
Uganda apparently has the youngest population in the world. Its children are its future. And there on the parade ground they were singing their national anthem, the second line of which goes like this. ‘United, free, for liberty, Together we always stand.’
Happy Independence Day, Uganda!